Tim does the Edinburgh Book Festival, Part Deux: Ian Rankin, "Life after Rebus keeps getting better"
Ian Rankin, “Life After Rebus Keeps Getting Better”
Edinburgh Book Festival – 24 August 2011
The DM Hall Event, chaired by Charlotte Higgins
I went to my second and last Edinburgh Book Festival event on Wednesday; again for free, thanks to my brother-in-law/flatmate who works for the sponsor company and won two free tickets at work. Cheers Seth!
To repeat what I said in the first of these posts, I took notes of what was said and have re-expanded them into this summary. Since I was taking down the most important points, the little connecting bits that link the paragraphs together are often not there, so please ignore the fact that it doesn’t all hang together properly. Also, please bear in mind that these are not all Ian’s words exactly, but the gist filtered through my brain.
CH: Sorry for the late start. Someone was ill in the Carol-Ann Duffy event – we don’t know what she said. [Laughter]
The focus of this event is on the second Malcolm Fox novel The Impossible Dead, due out in October.
You recently finished the long-running Inspector Rebus series in favour of a new character, Malcolm Fox, who works in Internal Affairs dealing with complaints against the police. How was the first Fox book The Complaints received? Did the public forgive you for putting Rebus aside?
IR: My publisher was worried. They wanted me to “stop the clock”, but I’d always been going to retire Rebus when he reached 60, the retirement age for detectives. But I’ve since learned that the retirement age has changed, and also that retired detectives do sometimes come back to work on cold cases for the wonderfully named Scottish Criminal Review Unit: “screw” [laughter]. [As far as I can work out this is fictional]
So he’s still kicking around at Fettes [the police HQ]. Actually, Malcolm Fox almost runs into him in the latest book. But Internal Affairs, where Fox works, is interesting because it’s like the antithesis of Rebus. They’re moving in the shadows, mistrusted by all around them – rather like spies.
CH: So it’s about watching and being watched?
IR: Yes, it kind of harks back to something I wrote a long time ago called Watchman, which was my attempt at a John Le Carré.
CH: Why is it set in Fife?
IR: I thought I’d leave Edinburgh people alone for a while, in case they were getting fed up with me writing about Edinburgh, and bother people in Fife instead.
CH: You didn’t fancy going anywhere further away, like London—
IR: Why would I want to do that?
CH: —or Glasgow?
IR: Nope! [Laughter]
Actually, it’s because I was doing a charity event in Kirkcaldy [in Fife] and there was a competition where you could win the right to appear in the next book. It was won by a couple of guys who ran a café, so I had to work in a visit to this café in Kirkcaldy at some point, and I thought “why not just set it there?” So The Pancake Place in Kirkcaldy becomes like a home from home for these two detectives. The competition winners really got their money’s worth!
Also, I wanted to take them into the “Badlands”, a place where there’s a different culture and language which they don’t really understand. As a friend of mine said to me as we were driving through Kirkcaldy, “It tells you a lot about a place when the biggest store is a ‘Rejects’”!
And Internal Affairs guys travel more than ordinary police do. For most officers there isn’t much occasion for them to go outside their area, so Rebus doesn’t often leave Lothian & Borders for work. But these guys cover the whole of Scotland – and of course, if there’s something wrong in your force, you don’t get your own guys to investigate it.
CH: You talk about your characters going from passivity to action. This seems to be part of how different Fox is from Rebus: he eats takeaway lasagne and alphabetises his book collection for fun—
IR: He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke...
CH: —Then he pushes over another cop who immediately goes down – he doesn’t know his own strength.
IR: Yeah, this is a guy who’s used to lurking in the background being invisible, and suddenly he gets a taste of some real action – and discovers he likes it.
CH: It was a long marriage with Rebus. Is Malcolm Fox a rebound, more long-term... how far are you going to take it?
IR: How far are you going to take that metaphor? [Laughter]
CH: We’ll park it.
IR: It won’t be as long as the Rebus series, for several reasons. One is that you only work in Internal Affairs for five years, and then go back to CID and become a regular detective again. This means you might have to work with people you’ve investigated, which can be awkward!
Also, I’m fifty. I wrote Rebus from when I was twenty-four to... forty-eight? Forty-six, seven? Can’t remember. I won’t still be writing Fox when I’m sixty. But now that I know Rebus is still around working cold cases, there’s potential for a bit of a crossover. After all, he is exactly the kind of guy Fox would investigate...
CH: Has your writing style changed now that you have a new main character?
IR: I’m putting fewer puns in as I’ve discovered they’re difficult for translators. I get the Danish and German translators coming to me and saying “How on earth can we make this pun work?” But I still have fun putting in lots of Scots words that I just want to see in print.
CH: Rebus’ name itself is a pun. What about Fox?
IR: I nicked that from “The Red Fox” in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Kidnapped, which I’d recently written an introduction for. That’s why the other major character is called [Jamie] Breck, after Alan Breck in Kidnapped.
I came to regret calling him “Rebus”, because it’s not a very realistic Scottish name. At the time I was in love with language, so it seemed like a good name for a detective, since it means a kind of puzzle. But after fourteen or fifteen books I discovered that it is actually a Polish name, after meeting a guy called Joe Rebus. So it turns out Rebus is actually Polish – who knew?
CH: [Something about the city of Edinburgh]
IR: I wanted to show Edinburgh to people. I did a PhD [unfinished] on Muriel Spark, and was surprised at how little this “great Edinburgh writer” actually wrote about Edinburgh and Scotland. I wanted to show people the contemporary Edinburgh where I was living as a student.
One thing I like about Edinburgh is that it’s a contained space. It’s not as vast as London or LA. I had a limited number of places where Malcolm Fox could live: “He can’t live in Marchmont; Rebus lives there. He can’t live in the New Town; too expensive...” So I ended up putting him in Oxgangs, which is a nice-ish area with a Morrison’s [supermarket].
But Rebus could never see how beautiful Edinburgh was, with its wonderful symmetry and so on. He views it through this jaundiced eye – to him it’s just one crime scene after another, and he can’t look beyond that. He’s the same way with relationships – any time anybody gets close to him, he ends up rejecting them. Fox isn’t so jaded and can better appreciate Edinburgh’s beauty.
[Ian Rankin then read an excerpt from the new book: the first part of Chapter 4, in which Malcolm Fox goes to visit his dad in a nursing home.]
[The Chairwoman then opened the floor up to questions from the audience, but asked one of her own to get us started.]
CH: At a meeting of the Chairs, we were talking about the oddest question from the audience we’ve ever heard, and we agreed it was “What’s your favourite colour balloon?”
IR: I don’t know about favourite colour balloon. I have been asked “What’s your favourite cheese?” before. But probably the oddest question I’ve been asked was when I was on tour to Japan. It was my last day, and at all my events there’d been complete silence at question time – nobody wanted to say anything. Then at the very last event, on the day I was due to go home, someone put their hand up! They said “Mr Rankin, thanks very much for coming. Can I just ask: where did you buy your trainers?” So I was able to tell them I bought them in Fort Kinnaird [shopping centre] in Edinburgh.
Q: Which actor playing Rebus did you prefer: John Hannah or Ken Stott?
IR: Well, the fans seem to prefer Ken Stott. ITV actually wouldn’t make the show without John Hannah; it was one of their conditions, although he himself thought he was too young for the role. Sean Connery, the one time I met him properly, said he wished he was 10 years younger so he could play Rebus. 15 years, 20 years...
ITV aren’t going to make another version of it – I know, because I’ve just got the rights back. I might do something more with it. I’d love to see it on the big screen!
Q: When do your creative juices flow? Early morning, late afternoon, evening? Drunk, sober, after a few whiskies?
IR: Always sober! I tried writing drunk once – it was rubbish. I find it best to start late morning, early afternoon. By the time you’ve alphabetised your CD collection, then gone shopping, then realised it’s nearly lunchtime so you might as well make lunch... I can get a solid block in from 2-5, and then 8-10pm. But if I go to bed with the story buzzing in my head, I won’t sleep well, and then I’m even more useless the next morning – it’s a vicious cycle.
I wrote this last book under the influence of Twitter. I tried to quit, as it can take up all your time, but it didn’t work and within two weeks I was back on. So now I tell myself I’ll go on in the evening, and use it for a break sometimes during the day. It can actually be good to do something else while your subconscious works on a problem in the background.
I try to write five or six days a week, because otherwise you forget stuff. So I produce books fairly quickly. I took a year out recently but ended up busier than before, because when everyone knows you’re not writing a book, you’re fair game for charity events and all sorts. So I’m now glad to be back to writing one book a year, as it’s the perfect excuse to say no.
Q: [Something about the influence of other writers on his work]
IR: There was one book I wrote under a pseudonym in which I simply stole the character of John Self from Martin Amis’ Money. I’d read it recently and couldn’t get him out of my head, so I wrote this as a sort of catharsis. My friend spotted it straight away: “That’s John Self isn’t it?” “Yeah, it is.”
Q: If Rebus comes back, does that mean we’ll see Siobhan again too?
IR: I’d like to do more with her as she’s a good strong character. There’s not a particularly good history of men writing about women, so I tried not to do it too much until people started telling me they really liked Jill Templar, so I thought I’d develop the other female characters a bit more.
I plan to have Siobhan trying to make a name for herself and coming out from under Rebus’s shadow, not being his sidekick any longer. And of course, Rebus would be in the background interfering, because he’s not the type to let her go...
The other person I want to bring back is Cafferty. He’s getting pretty old, and I see him sitting in his house (which is actually my house) afraid of challenges from younger, hungrier criminals, just waiting for someone to knock on the door and say “Your time’s up, old man”. It could be me – I remember being one of the “Young Turks” of crime fiction, and then I was surprised to receive the Diamond Dagger “lifetime achievement” award when I was in my bloody forties! I thought “I’m still planning to write a lot more, you know!”
Q: [Something about other writers]
IR: There was a time when crime fiction wasn’t seen as literature. When I was a student, people who wrote this kind of fiction wouldn’t, I’m sorry to say, be at this festival. But thankfully that’s not the case any more, and there are a lot of us here this year – Jo Nesbø, for example.
Q: Which was your favourite book to write?
IR: Well, Black and Blue was a bit of a leap forward. It maybe wasn’t that much more fun to write, but I did a lot more in it – bringing in the oil industry, going outside of Edinburgh... I felt like what came before was an apprenticeship leading up to that.
Doors Open came from an idea a friend and I had of doing a remake of Ocean’s 11 set in Edinburgh. We were going to have Sean Connery as the brains, Ewan McGregor as the glamour, and James McAvoy as the young upstart who comes in and helps them do it. But we took it to some producers and they said it was a terrible idea. “We’ve already had Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13: we don’t need Ocean’s Terminal!” [Laughter.] [Ocean Terminal is a large shopping centre in Edinburgh]
But the New York Times got in touch. [Didn’t quite follow the narrative here – possibly something about having written a short story and NYT wanted it to be a full-length book.] What about an Edinburgh heist? I love heist films, so I thought it was a great idea, and that’s where Doors Open came from.
Q: I’ve just been reading 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith. Do you really have a jacuzzi in your back garden?
IR: That’s the only true part! There’s no way I’d give a valuable painting back to the Conservative Association! [Laughter.] Sandy puts a lot of local characters into his books – I’ve reminded him that revenge is a dish best served cold. [Wry smile]
Q: So Alexander McCall-Smith might end up as an evil serial killer?
IR: This kind of thing does happen. I know a Canadian woman who was dumped by her boyfriend, and wrote to all her crime writer friends saying “Here’s a name to put in your next novel”. Then she waited for all of their publishers to send her copies of the book so she could read about all the horrible things that happened to him. She has a whole box full of them. Could be awkward if they ever got back together...
CH: Right, last question.
Q: Since you know and love Edinburgh so well, where should we go for a pint afterwards? [Laughter]
IR: It’s tempting to say the Oxford Bar, but you wouldn’t all fit in there. You have to walk past the Cambridge Bar to get there, and that’s a pretty good place. Or there’s Kay’s in the New Town. So some of the audience can go to the Oxford, some to the Cambridge, and some to Kay’s. Or you could go to Whigham’s across the road, because I’ve discovered (to my cost) that they often have live jazz on in the evening, which you can listen to for the cost of a bottle of wine.
I didn't queue up for the signing this time, so I never got to find out what Ian had been planning to ask Neil Gaiman, whether he got an answer later on in the Authors' Yurt, or whether I jabbed him in the back with my notepad. C'est la vie...